Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

I have passed up reading and/or posting on so many Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings over the last months – sadly, because there have been some excellent selections chosen for their political relevance. However, when I saw a sentimental favourite, Gene Stratton-Porter (1863-1924), pop up, I knew I had to break the drought.

Gene Stratton-Porter (Uploaded to Wikipedia, by gspmemorial; used under CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Some of you may not be familiar with this American Midwest author who wrote, says LOA, “sugary (and extremely popular) fiction to underwrite her work in natural history”. It was one of these works, The girl of the Limberlost, that I loved, and later introduced to Daughter Gums who also loved it. Yes, it was sentimental, though it has its tough side, but it did also leave an everlasting impression on me of its setting, Indiana’s Limberlost Swamp. According to LOA again, it was the immense success of this book, and Freckles which I also read, that resulted in her publisher agreeing to also publish her less saleable nature books. She was, writes LOA, “a fighter for the world she saw disappearing around her, as Standard Oil of Indiana drilled new wells and farmers drained more land”.

Interestingly, LOA’s as usual excellent introductory notes focus not on Stratton-Porter but on her subject, the Passenger Pigeon. LOA discusses others who have written about this bird – novelist James Fenimore Cooper, a chief of the Potawatomi Indians Simon Pokogon, and naturalists John James Audubon and John Muir – before eventually getting to Stratton-Porter herself. LOA’s point is to document the extinction of these birds from the early 1800s, when they were still seen in immense flocks, to a century later in 1914 when the last one died in captivity. Stratton-Porter wrote her piece just 10 years after that.

So Stratton-Porter’s piece. She commences by describing the beauty of her childhood farm, including its woods and forests where birds, such as the Passenger Pigeon, loved “to home”. She writes, introducing her environmental theme, that:

It is a fact that in the days of my childhood Nature was still so rampant that men waged destruction in every direction without thought. Nature seemed endlessly lavish …

When people started to clear land they “chopped down every tree on it” without, she says, having any “vision to see that the forests would eventually come to an end”. She writes – and remember, this was 1924:

… as the forests fell, the creeks and springs dried up, devastating winds swept from western prairies, and os the work of changing the climatic conditions of the world was well under way.

She talks of animals and game birds “being driven farther and farther from the haunts of civilisation”, but she also talks of people who did not believe in living so rapaciously, preferring instead to live in log cabins in small clearings. She describes her family’s own hunting practices, including of quail. As their numbers decreased, her minister father forbade the family’s trapping and egg-gathering. He’d noticed that when bird numbers were low, grain-damaging insect pests were high.

He had never allowed, however, the hunting of Passenger Pigeons, despite their being significantly more numerous in those days than quail. Stratton-Porter thinks this stemmed from his having “a sort of religious reverence” for pigeons and doves. Others, though, had no such qualms, and she describes some brutal hunting practices involving wild pigeons, which apparently made good eating. Gradually, it became noticeable, writes Stratton-Porter, that their numbers were decreasing. Not only did her family miss the sound and beauty of these birds, but

The work that they had done in gathering up untold quantities of weed seeds and chinquapins was missed and the seeds were left to germinate and become a pest, instead of pigeon food.

Once again, she notes the wider ecological or environmental implications of species reduction or loss. She then writes of the death of the final two birds in captivity before sharing her own searching for any remaining wild birds. It was while she was watching and photographing, over a period of time, a brooding goldfinch, that she heard the unmistakable “wing music of a bird that should reasonably have been a dove, but was not”. She describes this beautiful bird, but says “it had not the surety of a bird at home; it seemed restless and alarmed”. This was, she argues, “one of the very last of our wild pigeons”, a male bird “flying alone, searching for a mate and its species”.

Stratton-Porter closes her essay with a cry from the pigeon, whose song she says sounds like “See? See?”:

Where are your great stretches of forest? Where are the fish-thronged rivers your fathers en- joyed? Where are the bubbling springs and the sparkling brooks? Why is this land parching with thirst even in the springtime? Why have you not saved the woods and the water and the wildflowers and the rustle of bird wings and the notes of their song? See what you have done to me! Where a few years ago I homed over your land in uncounted thousands, to-day I am alone. See me searching for a mate! See me hunting for a flock of my kind! See what you have done to me! See! See! See!”

And that was written in 1924! Nearly 100 years ago, and yet we still destroy habitat including, here in Australia, that of one of our most popular native animals and national symbols, the koala. Will we never learn?

Gene Stratton-Porter
“The last Passenger Pigeon”
First published: Good Housekeeping, 1924 (Collected in Tales you won’t believe, 1925)
Available: Online at the Library of America

23 thoughts on “Gene Stratton-Porter, The last Passsenger Pigeon (#Review)

  1. No, ST, we never will. Because we will always have politicians seeking funds from wealthy corporations who, for their various but always selfish reasons, want to destroy habitat.
    I read “Laddie” as well as “Freckles” and “Girl of the Limberlost”; Gene wrote with amazing emotional pull.

  2. I was thrilled to read this post. I am in the process (slow) of writing a piece on the passenger pigeon. All extinction narratives are different, all tragic and horribly significant. However the story of loss of the passenger pigeon is perhaps one of the most poignant.

      • No, I had not read the Gene Stratton-Porter text. So I am most grateful to you for bringing it to my attention. My principal reference is A Feathered River Across the Sky by Joel Greenberg. – Bloomsbury 2014.

  3. Hi Sue, sad story and they will continue! Thanks for making me read it. My mother gave me The Girl of the Limberlost to read, which was given to her by her mother; and from then I was hooked on Gene Stratton-Porter novels. I searched second hand book shops and op shops. I now own, Laddie Freckles, The Keeper of Bees, Michael O’Halloran, Her Father’s Daughter, The Song of the Cardinal, and my favourite The Harvester. All centre around nature, beautiful stories, but all have a touch of sadness..

    • Yes, that’s the thing I think Meg – they aren’t just “sugary” though there is that element in them.

      I love finding others who loved her books, though I have to say, I don’t think I read all those when I was growing up.

  4. I don’t understand clear felling, it’s not even good for the land, let alone for the planet. And shooting, killing living things not even for sport but just for the sake of killing. It’s disgusting. We’re disgusting. I hope we leave a record of how vile and thoughtless we were for the next species that comes along.

    • Yes, Margaret, haunting is a great word. And that comes I feel from the Limberlost itself I think, and the way it seemed to be part of the characters’ beings in one way or another.

  5. How frustrating to be reminded how little we’ve learnt about our planet and how to look after it in over 100 yrs! The making of money and individual gain always seems to come first. Sigh

    Thank you for leading me into the arms of the LoA and their weekly blog. I’ve just discovered the Octavia Butler piece, someone I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

    • I love LOA Brona and have posted on many pieces over the years-some by people I love, and some by those I’ve been meaning to read – not to mention of course some by completely new people. It’s a great resource.

  6. Pingback: Stories & Shout Outs #37

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